Sunday, July 26, 2020

Queen of Blood (1966)

... aka: Flight to a Far Planet
... aka: Green Woman, The
... aka: Planeta sangriento (Bloody Planet)
... aka: Planet of Blood
... aka: Space Vampires

Directed by:
Curtis Harrington
Mikhail Karzhukov (uncredited: Soviet footage)
Otar Koberidze (uncredited: Soviet footage)
Aleksandr Kozyr (uncredited: Soviet footage)

I originally had another movie planned for today but I've got to take a slight detour to pay tribute to John Saxon, who passed away yesterday at the age of 84. The Brooklyn-born former teen model was discovered on the cover of a magazine and immediately signed by a talent agent who got him into TV and film right away. After doing a number of bit parts, most famously in A Star is Born (1954), he advanced to playing juvenile delinquents and supporting roles in Hollywood films, even netting a 1958 Golden Globe Award for "Most Promising Newcomer - Male" in the process. However, 'A List' stardom didn't quite pan out and he ended up embarking on an international B movie career in the 1960s while also becoming a frequent guest star on various television shows. His first genre work was the male lead in Mario Bava's THE EVIL EYE (1963), which is considered by many to be the first giallo and led to him having a decades-long association with Italian films (Saxon himself was fluent in Italian). He would then go on to work for some of the biggest names in Italian horror, including Dario Argento (TENEBRAE), Sergio Martino (THE SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS), Antonio Margheriti (CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE), Umberto Lenzi (NIGHTMARE BEACH) and others. In addition, he made genre films in the UK (1965's NIGHT CALLER FROM OUTER SPACE (1965), Mexico (1978's The Bees), Canada (1974's extremely influential BLACK CHRISTMAS) and elsewhere.

Saxon is undoubtedly best known for appearing in the martial arts classic Enter the Dragon (1973) alongside Bruce Lee and for his role as police-lieutenant-with-a-secret Donald Thompson in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) and its second sequel, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 (1987). He would even show up playing both himself and Thompson in Wes Craven's self-referential New Nightmare (1994). His Elm Street association insured Saxon would be a frequent presence in horror films for the remainder of his career. That much was evident when he followed the third Elm Street entry with starring roles in six horror films in just a three year period lasting from 1988 to 1990. During that time he also made his directorial debut with ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE (1988), which would end up being his only feature as director. Mostly retired since around 2010, Saxon had been living in a retirement community in Tennessee since 2017, along with his wife, Gloria. While standout roles for the actor were perhaps few and far between he always gave consistent, competent performances. The fact he also happened to appear in a number of classics along the way forever solidifies his place in horror history. So, hats off to you, Mr. Saxon.

Scanning over Saxon's horrorography, I realized there were very few of his genre films I hadn't yet seen. I didn't pick Queen of Blood because I suspected it would be one of his best films, or one his best roles, but because it'll be a first time view and Saxon has the top-billed lead role. Of course, it also doesn't hurt that his co-stars are Dennis Hopper and Basil Rathbone or that this was directed by Curtis Harrington, whose work I usually enjoy. Seemed like the makings of a good, lazy Sunday afternoon viewing. So it came as a pleasant surprise that this was better than what I was expecting.

The genesis for Queen came from uncredited executive producer Roger Corman's rights purchases of a number of older Soviet science fiction films that hadn't been given any significant release here in America. The first was Nebo zovyot (1959), which was re-edited, dubbed and had new reproductive organ alien monster (!!) footage added to it by one "Thomas Colchart" (Francis Ford Coppola!) for its 1962 U.S. debut under the title Battle Beyond the Sun. The second was Mechte navstrechu ("Dream Come True"), which Corman did not bother releasing as is, or at least close to as is. Instead, Harrington was tasked with shooting a brand new story around the special effects featured in both films, but to primarily use footage from the latter, which also incidentally included a space queen character. He'd previously made another film for Corman's company - VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET (1965) - which also utilized a lot of footage from yet another Soviet sci-fi flick called Planeta bur (1962).

It's 1990 and “the problem of traveling to the moon has been solved for many years.” Man has already colonized Earth's satellite with space stations but, seeing how there's not much activity to study on the moon, The International Institute of Space Technology plans to expand their scope to Venus and Mars. Luckily for them a series of mishaps occur that allow them to do just that. Laura James (Judi Meredith) and her colleagues in the “astro communications” department successfully pick up signals of extraterrestrial life. Turns out, the aliens want to meet up with us mere Earthlings and, since we lack the technology to go to them, they plan to send a ship of representatives to us. Unfortunately, their ship doesn't make it and has to crash land on Mars instead. They manage to send out a video recording of what's occurred to the institute as a sort of S.O.S., prompting Dr. Farraday (Rathbone) to launch a shuttle to the Red Planet. A group of top astronauts can now explore the planet and get on good terms with the stranded aliens by rescuing them. Sounds like a win / win but you know how those pesky aliens always have to complicate matters!

Among those chosen for the trip aboard the spaceship Oceano are alien communicator Laura, Commander Anders Brockman (Robert Boon) and astronaut Paul Grant (Hopper). Just three people for such an important and dangerous mission, you say? And I say, yes, just three people. Their activities are monitored back on Earth by Farraday and astronaut / pilot Allan Brenner (Saxon), who also happens to be Laura's boyfriend. The trio travel 75 million miles (it's actually 62.8 million miles from the Earth to Mars so perhaps they took a more scenic route?) to their destination. Hitting a sunburst along the way, their ship and equipment are severely damaged, but they still manage to safely land. Allan and another astronaut - Tony Barrata (Don Eitner) - convince Farraday to allow them to take another, smaller ship to help them out. Because their ship only holds so much fuel, their only hope is to hop onto Phobos, one of Mars' moons, and then use an even smaller rescue ship to coast into the atmosphere of the planet.

While on Phobos, Allan and Tony spot something out of a porthole that requires further investigation. It turns out to be the alien spacecraft, which actually crashed there instead of the surface of Mars as they first suspected. They run across an unconscious alien female (Florence Marly) there but, seeing how their rescue ship can only transport two people, they have to make an important decision. One of them has to stay there for a week. They flip a coin and Tony loses so Allan takes the alien to the surface of Mars and meets up with the others. Tony will just have to wait for completion of the Oceano II ship back on Earth, which should take about a week. And that's all she wrote for Mr. Tony as we never see him again. I wonder if he ever made it off of Phobos?

The alien wears a tight red jumpsuit, has green skin (and blood), blue eyes, bright white teeth, a pointy white beehive hairdo sometimes encased in a metal contraption and is mute. She seems to share certain physiological characteristics with humans, though the crew can't be certain because she refuses to let them take any blood from her. She also refuses to eat and shows an extreme hatred for Laura right out of the gate ("It seems our alien visitor doesn't get along very well with her own sex!") Paul quickly becomes infatuated with the alien. In fact, too infatuated as he's easily seduced (she seems to prefer feeding in the nude!) and then found dead the very next day completely drained of blood.

Learning that the alien has vampiric tendencies and survives on the red stuff, the remaining crew try to sustain her by giving up their supply of blood plasma. However, when that runs out, she makes a quick snack out of the commander, leaving only Laura and Allan to try to decide what to do. They start by tying her up, but she's able to increase her body temperature so high the ropes burn right off. How can the two contain the menace so it can be studied back on Earth without getting themselves killed in the process? Or is that even possible?

Remarkably, Harrington and editor Leo H. Shreve somehow make the reused Soviet footage and the newly-shot scenes meld together reasonably well here, with the more expensive and elaborate Soviet special effects being used primarily as background to enhance the new story. Of course, this was obviously done on the cheap, but the film still manages to entertain and even generates a few effectively eerie and atmospheric moments along the way. The primary performances are all quite solid, with Saxon and Meredith making for likable leads, Hopper perking up in his scenes with the alien during his early "normal" career phase (which was about over as he had The Trip and Easy Rider right around the corner) and Rathbone doing what he was hired a day and a half to do; competently delivering lines while mostly sitting around on cheap sets. Character actor Virgil Frye (in his film debut) and Famous Monsters' Forrest J. Ackerman both show also up in small roles.

The clear standout here though is Marly, who makes the most of her dialogue-free alien role. With her prominent cheekbones and strong facial bone structure, the Czech-born actress truly does seem creepy and otherworldly using only her eyes and facial expressions to convey the alien queen's two primary characteristics: alluring to ensnare male prey (helped along by her mesmeric glowing eyes) and barely-concealed anger when things don't go her way. It would have actually been cool to see an entire movie dedicated to this character as opposed to her only showing up in the second half here. Marly, whose career was derailed and essentially ruined when she was falsely branded a Communist during the Hollywood Blacklist, would only go on to appear in a few other roles after this before passing away in 1978.

George Edwards, Stephanie Rothman (The Velvet Vampire) and Samuel Z. Arkoff were all producers on this project, which was filmed in around a week. AIP released Queen to theaters on a double bill with BLOOD BATH (1966), which itself had cribbed footage from an obscure Yugoslavia crime-thriller called Operacija Ticijan. There was a 1987 VHS release through Star Classics (re-titled Planet of Blood and with fantastic box art!) and this was also distributed on VHS at one time by Something Weird. Even stranger was an ultra-obscure 1989 video release called Faces of Horror, which cobbled together footage from Queen, the Japanese Space Amoeba (1970) and The Thing with Two Heads (1972) and then released it in a plain box with a skull on it to trick viewers into thinking they were renting a Faces of Death / real-death-footage type of flick! In more recent years, Queen received a DVD burn-on-demand release through MGM and then, in 2015, was made available on Blu-ray for the first time by Kino Lorber.

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